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The New York Times, December 7, 2012

Passing Lane
Magnificence, by Lydia Millet

Bad things happen in the surreal landscape of Lydia Millet’s Los Angeles, many of them involving cars, those “cages along the roads by the billions with their tailpipes shooting out poisons.” But despite the smog, the traffic and the hideous, soul-killing office parks, you couldn’t call this L.A. noir. It’s as colorful as the flock of parrots that inexplicably flies through Millet’s suburbs. Amid all the misery, a certain innate good nature — and a desire to survive — shine through. A three-legged dog that stumps through the novel could serve as a mascot for Millet’s grim but grinning vision: tail wagging, the maimed dog just keeps on keepin’ on.

At the beginning of “Magnificence,” Millet’s provocative, evocative ninth book, a secretary named Susan Lindley learns that her husband of 30 years, Hal, has been killed in a freakish street robbery and stabbing in Central America. An I.R.S. agent, he had gone in search of Susan’s employer, a real estate developer “who fetishized his Mercedes and wore no suits retailing at less than 5K” and “had been discovered a few weeks ago living on a tropical island with poor hygiene, ribs showing, and a hut made of twigs.” Susan blames herself for her husband’s death, since he’d stumbled upon her in flagrante delicto — one of many infidelities, truth be told — right before he hastily left the country.

But having her husband shipped back in a coffin isn’t beleaguered Susan’s only tragedy. Her daughter, Casey, left a paraplegic after a car accident, has now embarked on a career in the phone sex industry. Susan blames herself for that too: “She was a bad mother and a slut; her daughter was a bad daughter and a slut. Two sluts.”

Completely awash in guilt, Susan gets a life-changing call: she has inherited a house from her great-uncle Albert. And not just any old house. Susan is more than shocked at what she finds inside the mansion at the gated estate on 20 acres in Pasadena — hundreds and hundreds of taxidermied animals, from the regulation big game with their roaring, open mouths and huge antlers to flamingos and minks. Every species seems to get a spot in this odd ark. To her astonishment, the menagerie even includes a common quail being trailed by its minuscule stuffed chicks. “How could you shoot something so small and put it together again?”

At first appalled by this “goth bordello,” Susan begins to appreciate the bizarre collection. “The dead were almost as beautiful as the living, sometimes more so,” she concludes. “They had far fewer needs.” Although she barely knew her great-­uncle, he clearly chose the right steward. But as she turns her attention to restoring the collection and trying to fathom what it meant to him, she must also defend it against a rapacious cousin intent on contesting the will. Luckily, one of her new paramours is a lawyer who proves useful in trying to have the house declared historic. While working to accomplish this, Susan gets her next shock. An architect brings her the original plans and reveals that the house had a huge basement — except they can’t find the door to it, or any staircase. At last a workman discovers a manhole in the backyard.

The climax of “Magnificence” reveals what’s down that manhole. It sounds like the plot of an action-adventure film, but Millet doesn’t play it that way. In fact, the discovery (no spoilers here) takes up very little space in the novel, which mostly involves Susan musing as she sleeps with the help, walks around the house’s many rooms and anxiously awaits messages from her daughter — who, to her surprise, has accompanied Susan’s now ex-boss, T., to Borneo on a mission to save the rain forest. They’ve left her the three-legged dog. They’ve also left her T.’s demented mother, who, in turn, brings a menagerie of old ladies for a “slumber party” that becomes semipermanent. What can Susan say? It’s not as if she doesn’t have space.

Readers who aren’t familiar with “How the Dead Dream,” the first novel in the trilogy in which “Magnificence” is the concluding volume, won’t have much background about T.’s relationship to Casey or his environmental activism. (Before his Borneo mission, his obsession with animal extinction led him to stage liberating raids on zoos — quite a contrast to Great-Uncle Albert’s hunting savagery.) Although Millet has credentials in environmental policy, this novel doesn’t push an argument about animal rights. And those who haven’t read the trilogy’s second book, “Ghost Lights,” won’t know much about the Lindley marriage or the adventure (complete with his own infidelity) that brings Susan’s husband to his death. That book makes a more forceful argument about the failure of our solipsistic culture. “He was a surplus human,” Hal thinks, “a product of a swollen civilization. He was a widget among men.”

A different kind of writer would combine these three short, lyrical books and call the result an epic. Millet’s approach is much more jaggedly imagistic. In “Ghost Lights,” she gives the tropics an underwater glow, eerie as bioluminescent fish. Here her focus is on hides. The skins of slaughtered animals contrast, for example, with the skin Susan craves during sex and ruefully recalls when missing her husband: “She liked the smell and feel of his skin . . . and the way he felt when she touched him. It was the skin that bound you most, the contact of two skins.” But contact, Millet implies, isn’t easy. Susan and the people she encounters are mostly as isolated from one another as commuters on a Los Angeles freeway. They can connect — briefly and mournfully — only through sex.

Some readers may be irked that Millet doesn’t spend more time exploring the enticing contents of that basement. But her oblique, elliptical style serves her vision well. The earth and its inhabitants may be going to hell in a hand basket, but most of us may not even notice. “You didn’t know what was happening out of view,” Susan learns. “You lived your life in a small part of the world, with only the faintest inkling of what was everywhere else.”

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton